Dir. Jan Troell. Denmark/Sweden, 2008. 130 mins.
Discreet, old-fashioned, traditional and altogether admirable, this is Jan Troell at his best. In this period drama about a woman photographer living in Sweden at the turn of the last century, the director pays minute attention to the smallest details. The result takes its time but never seems to drag its feet, and manages to be both an intimate family portrait and a rich canvass of working class life at that particular time.
Euro awards at least seem likely for Troell, who was a photographer before he turned to directing, whether for direction, photography or for the performances of Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Persbrandt. While this may not be the most suitable material for younger audiences, it could easily charm the rest and move beyond arthouse and festival crowds.
Agneta Ulstater Troell, the director’s wife, based the novel she wrote and its subsequent screen adaptation on the life of her own ancestor, Maria Larsson. She was a simple woman, married to a charming but hopeless redneck, who became a photographer at a time when no woman would have dreamt of embracing such a profession and no man, certainly not her working class lout husband, would condone it. Emerging behind the story of the married couple and their seven children, is a portrait of Sweden itself in the early 1900s. This is a time when the country assumed its capitalist identity in the midst of widescale labour unrest, with socialism and anarchism rife in the shadow of strikes and public demonstrations. Strict Protestant traditions also still overruled any thoughts of women’s rights. Jan Troell’s eye behind the camera wraps it all up in splendid monochromatic images, a perfect choice to portray working-class life of that time.
Maria (Heiskanen) wins her camera in a lottery but is far too busy working her fingers to the bone to think about photography. Her husband Sigfrid (Persbrandt), a former sailor fond of drink and women and frustrated by his own inadequacies, often vents his temper on his wife. Maria tries to sell the camera to a local photographer (Christensen), who insists she try it and offers some useful tips. It’s the beginning of a beautiful, platonic friendship that Sigfrid immediately hates and distrusts. Maria is a tough woman. With each new crisis, she stands up to Sigfrid a little more, although to the bewilderment of her oldest daughter, Maja (Ohrvall), who narrates the story, she never musters the courage to leave him.
Told in a precise, authoritative manner, the dense fabric of the plot and its various ingredients are put together in a clear narrative, accompanied by a spectacularly homogenous visual style.
Agnes Ulfsater Troell